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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Free Press By Hilaire Belloc Characters: 4592

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

During all this development of the Press there has been present, first, as a doctrine plausible and arguable; next, as a tradition no longer in touch with reality; lastly, as an hypocrisy still pleading truth, a certain definition of the functions of the Press; a doctrine which we must thoroughly grasp before proceeding to the nature of the Press in these our present times.

This doctrine was that the Press was an organ of opinion-that is, an expression of the public thought and will.

Why was this doctrine originally what I have called it, "plausible and arguable"? At first sight it would seem to be neither the one nor the other.

A man controlling a newspaper can print any folly or falsehood he likes. He is the dictator: not his public. They only receive.

Yes: but he is limited by his public.

If I am rich enough to set up a big rotary printing press and print in a million copies of a daily paper the news that the Pope has become a Methodist, or the opinion that tin-tacks make a very good breakfast food, my newspaper containing such news and such an opinion would obviously not touch the general thought and will at all. No one, outside the small catholic minority, wants to hear about the Pope; and no one, Catholic or Muslim, will believe that he has become a Methodist. No one alive will consent to eat tin-tacks. A paper printing stuff like that is free to do so, the proprietor could certainly get his employees, or most of them, to write as he told them. But his paper would stop selling.

It is perfectly clear that the Press in itself simply represents the news which its owners desire to print and the opinions which they desire to propagate; and this argument against the Press has always been used by those who are opposed to its influence at any moment.

But there is no smoke without fire, and the element of truth in the legend that the Press "represents" opinion lies in this, that there is a limit of outrageous contradiction to known truths beyond which it cannot go without heavy financial loss through failure of circulation, which is synonymous with failure of power. When people talked of the newspaper owners as "representing public opinion" there was a shadow of reality in such talk, absurd as it seems to us to-day. Though the doctrine th

at newspapers are "organs of public opinion" was (like most nineteenth century so-called "Liberal" doctrines) falsely stated and hypocritical, it had that element of truth about it-at least, in the earlier phase of newspaper development. There is even a certain savour of truth hanging about it to this day.

Newspapers are only offered for sale; the purchase of them is not (as yet) compulsorily enforced. A newspaper can, therefore, never succeed unless it prints news in which people are interested and on the nature of which they can be taken in. A newspaper can manufacture interest, but there are certain broad currents in human affairs which neither a newspaper proprietor nor any other human being can control. If England is at war no newspaper can boycott war news and live. If London were devastated by an earthquake no advertising power in the Insurance Companies nor any private interest of newspaper owners in real estate could prevent the thing "getting into the newspapers."

Indeed, until quite lately-say, until about the '80's or so-most news printed was really news about things which people wanted to understand. However garbled or truncated or falsified, it at least dealt with interesting matters which the newspaper proprietors had not started as a hare of their own, and which the public, as a whole, was determined to hear something about. Even to-day, apart from the war, there is a large element of this.

There was (and is) a further check upon the artificiality of the news side of the Press; which is that Reality always comes into its own at last.

You cannot, beyond a certain limit of time, burke reality.

In a word, the Press must always largely deal with what are called "living issues." It can boycott very successfully, and does so, with complete power. But it cannot artificially create unlimitedly the objects of "news."

There is, then, this much truth in the old figment of the Press being "an organ of opinion," that it must in some degree (and that a large degree) present real matter for observation and debate. It can and does select. It can and does garble. But it has to do this always within certain limitations.

These limitations have, I think, already been reached; but that is a matter which I argue more fully later on.

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